Shame is an emotion that seems to infiltrate almost every aspect of our lives and society. The media has been having a field day with shame lately: people should be ashamed of homosexuality, they should be ashamed of having sex, they should be ashamed of what they eat, they should be ashamed of being racist and sexist, or they should be ashamed of being too PC, they should be ashamed of not exercising, they should be ashamed of being dirty…any perceived fault seems to bear stigma along with it. People like to make each other feel ashamed because it’s a really fast way to get the other person to shut up. Even in social justice circles, where I generally agree with the end goals, shaming is a technique that gets used to illustrate to people how bad and wrong their behaviors are. My very informal Twitter poll showed that people think some bad behaviors truly do deserve shame.
Why is shame so popular? Is it really helpful? And what differentiates it from things like guilt? I’d like to suggest that we as a society start cutting back on our shamefest and start finding new ways to illustrate to people that we dislike their behaviors or find their behaviors unacceptable because shame has lots of negative consequences.
Shame as an emotion encapsulates a few things. First, it is the reaction to a rejection or judgment from others. Martha Nussbaum posits that the most primitive shame is the realization that we are not an omnipotent center of the universe and that we cannot constantly be catered to. It is the realization that others do not exist solely to fulfill our needs. As we mature, shame becomes the awareness that others might reject us and that our needs might not get met. It is not inherently related in any way to a bad or negative action. It is simply the reaction to others rejecting you.
Importantly, shame and guilt are two different things. Guilt is in response to a single action: you feel guilty if you know that your action was immoral or wrong. Shame however, points to the entire human being, or to a characteristic of the whole human being. You feel shame if you believe that you are a bad person, or the type of person that others do not want. Overall, this means that shame is an emotion that tells us there is nothing redeemable about us: it does not give us a path forward, and it does not tell us that we can do better. It illustrates to us our weakness, our broken humanity, and how small and wrong we are in this universe.
So why do we love to shame each other so much if shame seems to be such a negative and all-encompassing emotion? Well when we shame each other, we are often protecting ourselves. One of the best ways to keep ourselves from feeling ashamed is by foisting shame on others: we can’t be the weak, subhuman ones if we’re better than THOSE people over there, who are really the bad ones. For a lovely example of this, see Nazi Germany. More often than not, if someone is worried about whether or not they are strong enough, acceptable enough, or safe enough, they create an Other who can take on all of those worries for them: they imbue that other with all the qualities that they dislike about themselves, and then they distance themselves from that other to illustrate just how not weak they are. This is a really nice way for people to feel like they are safe. They surround themselves with what they consider normal, and feel that they are no longer in an unsafe world because all the people around them are just like them and are strong.
Another reason that people like to shame is because they feel that it’s an extremely effective way of getting someone to change their behavior. Shame is an extremely powerful emotion, and we like to think that if someone is ashamed of themselves, they will change their behavior. Shame punishments have become popular lately. When some businessmen in New York urinated on bushes in public, they were sentenced to cleaning the street with toothbrushes. We all laugh and feel that they were not really harmed and that they’ll never ever forget this punishment and thus will change their behavior. Shame seems like a wonderful way to express our societal morals. Particularly in relation to things that we feel are really abominable we want someone to feel shame: if you shoot someone, you should be horribly ashamed of yourself. You deserve to feel shame because you are a bad person.
But is shame actually effective and acceptable? Most studies indicate that it is not. Shame tends to rip apart someone’s self-identity and leave them without any sense that they can recover or be rehabilitated. It excludes them from the community and does not give them an effective way of moving back into the community and improving their behavior. Shame does not tell you that something is wrong with the way you behaved, but that you could change it and be welcomed back. Shame tells you that YOU are wrong and do not belong. Shame tends to be linked to things like addiction, mental illness, anti-social behaviors, and crime. More often than not it does not lead to improved behavior but rather to more self-hatred and a further distancing of oneself from the community. There are very few examples in which using shame improved someone’s behavior.
In addition to the fact that it won’t improve someone’s behavior, shame often damages the individual in extreme ways. Shame can lead to extreme loneliness and antisocial behaviors. It can also cause extreme guilt, self-hatred, self-harm, and other negative coping strategies. For the most part, shame does not allow someone any confidence or self-identity to move forward in life, but pushes them to stagnate and break apart.
Now some people suggest that there are different kinds of shame. There is constructive shame, which allows for reparations and forward movement, and there is a more primitive kind of shame that traps someone in a stigmatized position forever. There is not a clear cut difference between the two though. In one case, the shame simply seems to be deserved. Unfortunately, even when shame might be deserved, it still can lead to negative consequences and still makes it difficult for an individual to see themselves as separate from the negative action they undertook.
Additionally, these two types can easily meld into each other, and even when we believe that something is a constructive version of shame, we may simply be using it to enforce social norms rather than morals designed to keep people safe and happy. Shame is a dangerous emotion because a little shame goes a long way, and because the majority loves to fall into moral panics by shaming others for no reason. It is easy for a group to stigmatize others in order to make themselves feel safer, and all too often even well-meaning shame becomes cruel, oppressive, and stigmatizing. While it may be tempting to try to shame others to get them to understand when they’re behaving poorly, shame is not an effective or helpful tool to improve our societies and communities. If we do want others to feel bad, guilt is a more appropriate technique as it points to the specific action they did wrong.